From starters to five: a short history of football substitutions – The Guardian


More than 170 years have passed since the first football substitutes were used on the playing fields of Eton College. Back in the 1850s, when schoolboys did not turn up for games, replacements were drafted in at the last minute. The first recorded mention of substitutes came in 1863.The Charterhouse eleven played a match in cloisters against some old Carthusians but in consequence of the non-appearance of some of those who were expected it was necessary to provide three substitutes,” reported Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, a weekly eight-page broadsheet.

It took the professional game almost a century to catch up, finally introducing substitutes in qualifying matches for the 1954 World Cup. The honour of being the first substitute in top class football was accorded to Richard Gottinger, who came on for West Germany in their 3-0 victory over Saarland in Stuttgart on 11 October 1953. West Germany qualified for that World Cup and went on to win it – the first of their world titles – but those 37 minutes were to be Gottinger’s only involvement. He never played for his country again.

With no substitutions allowed in league games, injured players often faced a tough choice. Bert Trautmann, another German player who was left out of the squad for the 1954 World Cup, made the headlines when he played through the pain in the 1956 FA Cup final. Trautmann stayed in goal for Manchester City despite the minor inconvenience of breaking his neck in a collision with Birmingham City forward Peter Murphy.

While other countries introduced substitutions in their domestic leagues in the 1950s, the FA dragged their heels, to the serious detriment of some clubs and players. Roy Dwight – who is perhaps better known as Elton John’s cousin – opened the scoring for Nottingham Forest against Luton in the 1959 FA Cup final before breaking his leg in the 33rd minute. Forest were 2-0 up when Dwight went off and they just about held on, winning the final 2-1.

Blackburn Rovers did not prove as resilient in the following season’s Cup final when their full-back, Dave Whelan, fractured his leg in the first half. Blackburn ended up losing the game 3-0 to Wolves and Whelan never played for the club again. Although he became a very successful businessman after he retired from football, amassing a fortune through his JJB retail stores, which led to him buying Wigan Athletic in 1995 and leading them to FA Cup glory at Wembley in 2013.

In light of these high-profile casualties, the FA eventually agreed to experiment with the idea of substitutions. It was begrudging acceptance, as the FA News reported at the time: “The general consensus of opinion would appear to be that, in principle, the use of substitutes in competitive football was not desirable.”

Almost a decade after Trautmann’s heroics, Keith Peacock became the first substitute to appear in a Football League match. Again, it was an injury to a goalkeeper that brought about this landmark occasion. Charlton Athletic were playing away at Bolton Wanderers on the first day of the 1965-66 season when their keeper, Mike Rose, picked up an injury after 11 minutes. Even though he started more than 500 appearances for Charlton between 1962 and 1979, Peacock is in some ways more remembered for a game he did not start.

“I was disappointed at not playing,” he recalled later. “Before then a spare player had travelled, in case of illness, but not got changed. I still didn’t expect to be involved – but after only a few min­utes Mick Rose, our goalkeeper, had to come off. It was only on the train back from Manchester, from one of the evening papers, that I found out I had been the first.” Peacock came on for a keeper but did not play in goal. Charlton’s central defender John Hewie was an accomplished keeper so he took over from Rose.

Initially substitutes were only allowed to replace injured players but it was suspected that some of the cannier managers, such as Leeds’ Don Revie, had ulterior motives when making substitutions, using the system to make tactical moves. This manoeuvre was legitimised in England in the 1967-68 season and then for the World Cup finals in 1970. The rule change did not work to England’s advantage in Mexico. Alf Ramsey took off Bobby Charlton in the quarter-finals with 20 minutes remaining, in which time West Germany turned the game to win 3-2.

Bobby and Jack Charlton during training for 1970 World Cup in Mexico.



Bobby and Jack Charlton during training for 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Other managers used their 12th man to great effect. Bob Paisley developed the handy knack of bringing on a player at the perfect time for Liverpool. As befits a man whose autobiography is entitled Supersub, David Fairclough became known for his impact when coming on. Some of his most important interventions came in the 1975-76 season when Liverpool won their first title under Paisley. Fairclough only started two league games but he also chipped in from the bench and scored seven goals, including a late winner in the Merseyside derby as Liverpool pipped QPR to the title by a single point.

Fairclough’s most celebrated appearance as a substitute came the following season in the European Cup. Liverpool were losing to St Étienne on away goals in the quarter-finals when Fairclough replaced John Toshack at Anfield in the 74th minute. Ten minutes later he produced the decisive goal and set Liverpool on their way to their first European Cup triumph in May 1977. Much to his chagrin, he did not make it on to the pitch for that final against Borussia Mönchengladbach or indeed the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

“I was very disappointed,” revealed Fairclough later. “I played in the FA cup semi-finals against Everton, started both games and had all the celebrations to go to the final. Leading up to the FA Cup final day, Bob Paisley tells me I am going to play in the final. It never happened. ‘You’ll play next week in Rome, I’ll need you in Rome.’ Then in Rome I was sub.” In his Liverpool career, Fairclough racked up a pretty healthy 37 goals from 92 starts and he added another 18 goals in 62 substitute appearances. Appropriately enough his last league goal for Liverpool came against Swansea on 9 April 1983 when he scored in the 86th minute, 10 minutes after coming on.

A few years after Fairclough left Liverpool, the Football League increased the number of substitutes to two for the 1987-88 season and then to three in the mid-1990s. In contrast to Fairclough, a substitute who did make a significant impression on a European Cup final some 22 years later was the current Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Norwegian came on in the 81st minute with United still trailing Bayern Munich to Mario Basler’s early goal. After Teddy Sheringham – another substitute – had equalised, Solskjær secured the improbable turnaround in the 93rd minute.

Five players come on for Manchester United in the 80th minute of their match against Sheffield United.



Five players come on for Manchester United in the 80th minute of their match against Sheffield United. Photograph: Michael Steele/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing can match Solskjær’s memorable substitute appearance that night in Barcelona. Although, three months earlier, he also did something that has never been emulated since. United were coasting to victory against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground when Solskjær came on for Dwight Yorke in the 71st minute. United were already 4-1 up but Solskjær showed no mercy, scoring four goals in 11 minutes – the most by a substitute in the Premier League.

Solskjær’s love of substitutions has continued into his managerial career. He was the first manager to make a quintuple substitution in the Premier League, bringing on five substitutes at once against Sheffield United and making full use of the new law that allows managers to switch five players per game. The law will stay in place for the rest of this season and, most likely, the start of next season, so Solskjær’s players will have their chances to match his various achievements coming off the bench.

Richard Foster’s new book Premier League Nuggets is out now and you can follow him on Twitter.


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